25 February 2004 | tjonasgreen
Entertaining family saga from Louis Bromfield's best-seller.
This is an entertaining family saga from Louis Bromfield's novel, the kind of long, digressive trash wallow that still regularly tops best-seller lists. Essentially a subversive treatise on why inherited wealth is a bad thing, we observe the wealthy Mrs. Parkington as she copes with her selfish, dishonest middle-aged children in 1920s N.Y. while reminiscing about her stormy Gilded Age marriage to her late husband, a Wall Street cutthroat who made a vast fortune.
Greer Garson wears a black wig in this role and -- surprisingly -- it really dims her luster. One misses that hair, so unmistakably red even in black and white, which usually illuminates her face. She also looks too old in the early scenes in which she's meant to be a teenager, and her acting is too arch in her scenes in old age. Even so, she's a suitable and sympathetic figurehead for this limousine ride of a movie. Walter Pidgeon is exactly what the part of the Robber Baron requires: physically imposing and masculine, stubborn and rakish by turns, he is never dynamic but always convincing.
There are several worthwhile points of interest here: In a role that earned her a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, Agnes Moorehead gives a vivid performance as the French mistress that Parkington insensitively presses into service to make his wife the queen of N.Y. society. Moorehead's efficient acting suggests everything about this woman's precarious existence as well has her combination of artifice and pragmatism. She's like a character out of Trollope. A slightly lesser revelation is Gladys Cooper, cast against type and showing surprising depths of cynicism as a suicidal playgirl. In addition, the film is more frank and relaxed about sexual philandering (both pre-and extra-marital) than one would expect from an MGM film of 1944. And several of the sets, most notably the spectacular rendering of the Parkington mansion on Fifth Avenue (including an entry hall that doubles as a ballroom, complete with two endlessly curving staircases and a colonnade of pillars that leads to a dining hall seating 100) are prime examples of the opulent art direction one routinely enjoys in Hollywood pictures of the '40s.
Finally, although the first third of the film sometimes drags, there are two excellent set pieces that are beautifully constructed and lovingly detailed by director Tay Garnett. The first is a Parkington dinner party to which N.Y.'s 400 are invited -- the pervasive tension and gradual buildup to disaster are really memorable here, as is the use of the film's most impressive set. The second is a very droll bit of drawing room comedy during which Mrs. Parkington meets and enlists the aid of the Prince of Wales to win back her husband from the clutches of an English society hostess. The polite bitchery between the ladies is delightful.
Prospective viewers can decide if this list of pleasures justifies a look at this luxe movie.